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The Creative Spirit

Written by Jim Heynen, Writer and Creators Space Member

Just because we can’t see the Creative Spirit doesn’t mean she isn’t busy in the ozone of possibilities. And just because we can’t see her doesn’t mean we can’t think of her metaphorically. Sometimes the Creative Spirit is a large friendly bird flying above us. Sometimes she’s a deep internal egg that needs to incubate before hatching. Or she can be an ache in our heart that wants to find an unloved recipient. She can also be an eye twitch that makes us look twice at something that’s been right under our noses for a long time. If we watch little kids playing with blocks, we can see how the Creative Spirit makes those little hands construct block formations the likes of which no one has ever seen before. To be sure, the Creative Spirit may be elusive—but she’s lurking everywhere.

To those of us who find ourselves attached at the hip, or holding hands with, or lip-locked with some form of the creative arts, the best advice we can give ourselves is to be in a constant state of awareness for possibilities. Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Mary Oliver described her writing process as “standing still and learning to be astonished.” I don’t see any aggression in her process. I don’t see any gritty discipline. I don’t see any prejudgment. I don’t see any impatience. What I see is open readiness.

Oh, there may be some common sense strategies—like getting up early, like having a work schedule, like meditation, like staring at work we admire, like making sure we have the practical tools for our art in our hands. But here’s one thing I’ve learned from being at this game for a very long time: Don’t talk too much about what you’re going to do, just do it!

But what if we’re having a bad day? What if we seem stuck? What if the Creative Spirit does not fly down to help us or hatch within us on a given day? What if we sit waiting for that creative twitch and it doesn’t come?

I’m sure every creative artist knows that feeling—when nothing seems to be brewing. Among writers, it’s called “writer’s block.” I like what the poet William Stafford had to say. He was someone who wrote a poem every day for most of his adult life, was very widely published, and won many prestigious awards. After one of his public readings, an eager hand went up in the audience: “But, Mr. Stafford, what do you do on a day when a poem doesn’t occur to you?” Stafford smiled and said, “I just lower my standards.”

I loved that answer then and I still do. It helps me deal with my own obstacles. When I don’t feel like writing, it’s because I’m afraid that what I write won’t excite me or anyone else. In other words, my greatest barrier to my own creative process is fear of failure. What if what I write isn’t any good?

Some creative-spirit voice rescues me from that question by echoing William Stafford: “So what! Lower your standards, and maybe the process of writing will surprise you with its results.”

Getting good results by lowering my standards has happened so often that I passed the advice on to my students. I told them to lower their expectations before they even started to write. We’d do some in-class writing games that started with making a list of things that were totally unimportant.

The lists included items like “The length of my fingernails” and “mashed potatoes.” The next prompt was to make that “unimportant” item a metaphor for something else. The results surprised them when they got the critic off their shoulder, lowered their expectations, and let the Creative Spirit descend, attach, hatch, and astonish.


Jim Heynen is the author of several collections of poetry and three novels but is best known for his short-short stories about the boys. These unnamed boys are featured in several collections, including THE ONE-ROOM SCHOOLHOUSE and THE BOYS'S HOUSE. On his last space mission, Minnesota astronaut George Pinky Nelson took a recording of Jim reading some of these stories for his outer-space bedtime listening


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